Beginning With Baby

Do Not Disturb

First Comes Love

Wish You Were Here

 
An Offer He Can't Refuse
by Christie Ridgway
(Avon, $6.99, R) ISBN 0-06-076348-5
****
Téa Caruso is the granddaughter of a powerful California Mafia don. Still troubled by the mysterious disappearance of her father when she was twelve, she has cut off all ties to the Mob. She runs her own interior decorating business and hopes redoing a Palm Springs property, recently purchased by a Las Vegas entrepreneur, will give her the boost she needs. The entrepreneur is also one of the few men she is attracted to and who, much to her surprise, returns her feelings.

Because Téa is not just hiding her family connections, she is also repressing a lifetime of childhood secrets, adolescent insecurities and adult passions under her conservative Laura Bush clothes, Young Republican hairstyle and ultra-professional behavior.

Little does Téa suspect that the man who sees the person behind the wardrobe is not exactly who he claims to be. Johnny Magee is a gambling syndicate owner who has just bought his father's old house to find the answer to a sixteen-year-old mystery. He hopes Téa Caruso will facilitate his access to the Mob family and unwittingly help him solve the crimes that link them to each other. After all, his father was gunned down in retaliation for the mysterious disappearance of hers.

As with Téa, Johnny's present behavior is rooted in his past traumas. Unlike her, he does not conceal his Golden Boy looks. But then, along with his step-father's name, they stand between him and his Italian Mafia past. On the other hand, he blanks out when assailed by disturbing memories. Téa's mere presence is an unexpected cure-all. And so, what begins as a calculated seduction very quickly becomes something quite different.

Whereas some readers might be disappointed with the less-than-honest hero, it is the completely predictable development in the romance plot that bothered me. Once Téa finds out who Johnny is, she immediately breaks things off. Fortunately, this expected turn of events is balanced by the unexpected solution to the mystery.

Yet, for all its importance in their lives, the whodunit is not given too much weight. Instead, the main subplots revolve around Tea's grandfather's attempts to draw her back into the family and Tea's young assistant. While engaging in every form of teenage rebellion including piercing and tattoos, Rachele continues to live with her over-protective Italian father. She doesn't know how to convince him to let go when she falls for Johnny's computer-friendly assistant.

All these references to childhood trauma and adult coping strategies may make An Offer He Can't Refuse sound like heavy reading, but this is by no means the case. Despite its interest in dysfunctional Mafia families, the novel owes more to Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack than to The Sopranos. The mood is set by the plush but comfortable styles of 1950s music, movies and domestic architecture, to which Ridgway pays constant tribute. Titles such Doris Day's "It Had to Be You" and Dean Martin's "Ain't that a Kick in the Head" serve as chapter headings, while Johnny's mid-century modern house is described in detail. Lest you think the latter makes the novel more of an interior decorator's handbook than a romance, consider the bedroom. Lined with panels where couples appear in various compromising positions, it gives an entirely new meaning to the expression "It's done with mirrors."

Such particulars do more than provide a well-researched setting. Coupled with engaging dialogue, a healthy appreciation for the ample-sized woman and kind but troubled characters, they offer a refreshing alternative to the over-familiar landscapes of most contemporary romances, which are far too overpopulated with nostalgic small towners or caustic city slicks.

Although Tea's mother and her sisters are a strong presence in her life, I am surprised they don't appear more often. But then, its emphasis on the Family aside, An Offer He Can't Refuse is more a traditional romantic comedy than a relationship or sisterhood book. I nevertheless suspect we will be hearing more about man-eating half-sister Evie and one-of-the-guys sibling Joey in the not-too-distant future. I, for one, will be keeping my ears open.  

--Mary Benn


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